Barkley Elementary School, ENL teacher, Lisa Barbrino with student Alicia Maldonado.

Difference ≠ deficit

How to build a culturally responsive classroom.


To meet the needs of our increasingly diverse student population, educators must build classroom environments where everyone feels comfortable, regardless of their proficiency in English.

In “Culturally Responsive Classrooms” ELT instructor Carmen Vazqueztell, a member of United University Professions – Empire State Chapter, teaches educators how to teach to the children in front of them and value diversity in culture, language and other traits, rather than seeing difference as a deficit.

“Don’t look at students as half-empty glasses, but as half-filled glasses. Identify their strengths, and start there,” said Vazqueztell. Here, Vazqueztell provides three tips for making your classroom more culturally responsive:

1 - Respect student experiences.

Being a good teacher starts with knowing your students. Teachers may know ELL students attended school previously but have no idea what that experience was like for them. For instance, how frequently did they attend? Did they go to school all day? How many students were in their class? Were the students in their class all the same age? Take the opportunity to speak to students one-on-one and in groups to learn more about their previous experiences and preferences. Classrooms must be places where students’ culture of origin is affirmed, even as they develop proficiency in a new one. 

2 - Keep expectations high but make lessons accessible for all.

When it comes to teaching, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Educators must be flexible when it comes to both teaching and assessment. In her course, Vazqueztell shows teachers modifications they can use to make their lessons more accessible to English language learners, including visual aids, manipulatives, and dialogue. “It’s not about watering the content down. It’s just as rigorous as it was, but now you’re finding new ways for students to demonstrate their understanding of it,” Vazqueztell said. 

3 - Use culturally relevant media.

Even though most public-school students are students of color, this is not always represented by the schools they attend. Instead, classrooms continue to be preoccupied with the mainstream culture of white Americans. Educators should include multiple perspectives of events in their classrooms, and always make sure representation of other cultures is responsible and respectful. “Don’t use media that only portrays Latinos as housekeepers and gardeners, or African Americans as entertainers and athletes,” Vazqueztell said. Show students a variety of lived experiences, and always encourage them to make connections between class material and their own communities.

ELT coursework is offered year-round and can be used for undergraduate, graduate and in-service credit as well as to fulfill Continuing Teacher and Leader Education requirements. For more information, go to elt.nysut.org.